- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — House and Senate leaders from both parties sat down Tuesday for their first postelection meeting with President Obama in an atmosphere charged with tension over taxes and a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

Mr. Obama is called the meeting “a good start” on efforts to work more closely with Hill Republicans to resolve differences.

Appearing at the end their lengthy meeting at the White House, Mr. Obama said he believes all the leaders present understand that the people sent a message in the elections that they want more results, not gridlock or unyielding partisanship.

Mr. Obama said, “There are things we need to get done” before Congress leaves for the holidays in December.

Republicans set the tone for the session early, declaring steadfast opposition to any tax increases when the current Bush era tax cuts expire at the end of the year.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Democrat, said the lawmakers told Mr. Obama they were solidly against allowing tax rates to go up for anyone, including the wealthy. He earlier delivered a stinging critique of Democratic suggestions to increase taxes only on taxpayers with incomes of more than $1 million.

“It turns out this figure has no economic justification whatsoever,” Mr. McConnell said. “Nowhere will you find a study or survey which indicates that raising taxes on small businesses with over $1 million in income will create jobs or help spur the economy.”

Mr. Obama has said he would oppose a permanent extension of the tax cuts for taxpayers earning more than $200,000 as individuals and $250,000 as couples.

At the same time, a couple of Republican senators signaled possible movement on the START pact, which would reduce nuclear weapons arsenals in the United States and Russia. Mr. Obama has made approval of the treaty this year a top national security goal.

The midmorning meeting came a day after Mr. Obama, pre-empting the Republicans, announced he was proposing to freeze the salaries of some 2 million federal workers for the next two years. The White House talks Tuesday were seen as an opportunity for the two parties to size up each other even as they struggle for common ground on taxes, START and other issues on the legislative agenda before Congress adjourns for the year.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said his party wants to “make sure no one gets a tax hike while we’re trying to create jobs in the private sector.”

Tuesday’s meeting, scheduled for one hour, was the first formal sitdown between the president and the bipartisan leadership since the GOP recaptured control of the House and narrowed the Democratic majority in the Senate in the Nov. 2 elections. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and White House budget director Jacob Lew also attended the meeting.

The meeting comes as a new Associated Press-CNBC Poll shows most people oppose extending expiring tax cuts for the richest Americans. Just 34 percent want to renew tax cuts for everyone, 50 percent prefer extending the reductions only for those earning under $250,000 a year, and 14 percent want to end them for all.

On START, Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, who was one of the leaders invited to Tuesday’s meeting, has rejected the administration’s assertion that the treaty must be dealt with during the lame-duck session, saying the Senate has more pressing issues to deal with.

But Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, appeared to leave open the possibility of working with the White House, saying he still hoped progress could be made this year.

“I believe that we could move forward with the START treaty and satisfy Sen. Kyl’s concerns and mine about missile defense and others,” Mr. McCain said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican, who earlier this month raised concerns about the treaty’s impact on the former Soviet satellite nations, told reporters, “I’d like to get it done, but in my conscience I want to feel it’s the right thing to do.”

Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, was asked about the latest wrinkle — Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s warning that a new arms race will erupt if Russia can’t agree with the West about a joint European missile defense program.

“I’m open-minded, and this is one of the issues I’ll raise with the State Department briefing teams coming up to talk to me,” he said.

Mr. Obama said Monday he hopes Tuesday’s White House session “will mark a first step toward a new and productive working relationship, because we now have a shared responsibility to deliver for the American people on the issues that define not only these times but our future.”

Despite their political gains, Republicans approached Tuesday’s session with some apprehension. Presidents typically gain a public relations advantage by inviting leaders of the opposition party to the White House.

Many Republicans still bristle at the health care summit that Mr. Obama called last February. Democrats got more time to make their case than Republicans, and the session yielded no Democratic compromises.

Mr. Cantor accused Mr. Obama of engaging in “class warfare.” ”This country is about making sure everyone has a fair shot,” he said in an interview.

Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.


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